10 kilometers from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt made one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries of our time: huge carved stones about 11,000 years old, worked and arranged by prehistoric people who had no tools. , nor metal tools. Tools developed pottery. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by about 6,000 years. The place is called Göbekli Tepe, and Schmidt, a German archaeologist who has been working here for over a decade, is convinced that the oldest temple in the world is located here.
"Good morning,"says 5:20am when your van picks me up from my hotel in Urfa. Thirty minutes later, the van pulls up to the bottom of a grassy hill and parks next to strands of barbed wire. We followed a group of workers uphill to rectangular shafts shaded by a corrugated iron roof: the main excavation site. Stones or pillars are placed in the pits in a circle. Behind, on the slope, are four more rings of partially excavated columns. Each ring is more or less similar in design: in the center are two large T-shaped stone pillars surrounded by slightly smaller stones that point inwards. The tallest pillars are 16 feet tall and weigh between seven and 10 tons, according to Schmidt. As we walk among them, I see that some are empty, while others are intricately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions, and vultures abound, squirming and crawling along the broad sides of the columns.
Schmidt points out the large stone rings, one of which is 20 meters wide. "This is the first man-made holy place," he says.
From this viewpoint 300 meters above the valley we can see the horizon in almost all directions. Schmidt, 53, asks me to imagine what the landscape looked like 11,000 years ago, before centuries of intensive agriculture and human occupation turned it into the almost featureless brown expanse it is today.
Prehistoric people would have marveled at herds of gazelles and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers that attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit trees and walnut trees; and rolling fields of wild barley and wild wheat like emmer and einkorn. "This area was like paradise," says Schmidt, who works at the German Archaeological Institute. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe lies at the northern end of the Fertile Crescent, an arc of temperate climate and farmland stretching from the Persian Gulf to present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and would have attracted hunter-gatherers from Africa and the Levant. . And in part because Schmidt has found no evidence of humans permanently residing atop Göbekli Tepe, he believes this was a place of worship of unprecedented proportions: mankind's first "cathedral on a hill".
As the sun rises in the sky, Schmidt ties a white scarf around his bald head, turban-style, and deftly walks down the hill among the relics. In lightning-fast German, he explains that he's mapped the entire summit using ground-penetrating radar and geomagnetic surveys, mapping where at least 16 other megalithic rings are buried across 22 acres. The 1 hectare excavation covers less than 5% of the site. He says archaeologists could dig another 50 years here and barely scratch the surface.
Gobekli Tepe was first studied and discarded by anthropologists at the University of Chicago and Istanbul University in the 1960s. As part of a comprehensive survey of the region, they visited the mound, saw some broken limestone slabs, and assumed that the mound it was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own study of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the boulder-studded hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers' report, he decided to go there. From the moment she first saw it, she knew the place was exceptional.
In contrast to the arid plateaus nearby, Göbekli Tepe (the name means "belly mound" in Turkish) has a gently rounded peak that rises 15 meters above the surrounding landscape. The shape stood out to Schmidt's eyes. "Only humans could have created something like this," he says. "It was immediately clear that this was a massive Stone Age site." The limestone shards, which earlier surveyors had mistaken for tombstones, suddenly took on a different meaning.
Schmidt returned a year later with five colleagues and they discovered the first megaliths, some buried so close to the surface that plows scratched them. As archaeologists dug deeper, they discovered columns arranged in a circle. But Schmidt's team found none of the telltale signs of habitation: no kitchens, houses or dumps, and none of the clay fertility figures found in nearby sites that were about the same age. Archaeologists have found evidence of the use of tools, including stone hammers and cleavers. And because these artifacts are very similar to those found at nearby sites, previously dated to around 9000 BC. Schmidt and his collaborators estimate that the stone structures at Gobekli Tepe are the same age. Limited on-site carbon dating by Schmidt supports this assessment.
For Schmidt, the rocky, sloping subsoil of Gobekli Tepe is a mason's dream. Even without a metal chisel or hammer, prehistoric stonemasons could have used flint tools to chip softer limestone into columns on site before carrying them a few hundred meters to the top and lifting them into the air. So, says Schmidt, when the stone rings were completed, the ancient master builders covered them with earth. Finally, they placed another ring next to or on top of the previous one. Over the centuries, these strata created the crest of the hill.
Today, Schmidt leads a team of more than a dozen German archaeologists, 50 local workers and a steady stream of enthusiastic students. He usually digs the site for two months in spring and two in autumn. (Summer temperatures reach 115 degrees, too hot to dig; in winter, the area is soaked with rain.) In 1995, he bought a traditional Ottoman courtyard house in Urfa, a city of nearly half a million people, to use. as a base of operations.
On the day of my visit, a bespectacled Belgian sits at the end of a long table facing a pile of bones. Joris Peters, an archaeozoologist at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, specializes in analyzing animal remains. Since 1998, he has examined more than 100,000 bone fragments from Göbekli Tepe. Peters often finds cut marks and chipped edges on them, signs that the animals they came from were slaughtered and cooked. The bones, kept in dozens of plastic boxes stacked in a storage room in the house, are the best clue to how the people who created Göbekli Tepe lived. Peters identified tens of thousands of gazelle bones, which make up more than 60% of the total, along with bones from other animals such as wild boar, sheep and deer. He also found bones from a dozen different species of birds, including vultures, cranes, ducks and geese. “In the first year we reviewed 15,000 animal bones, all wild. It was pretty clear that we were dealing with a place for hunters and gatherers,” says Peters. "It's been the same every year since then." The numerous game remains indicate that the people who lived here had not yet domesticated or bred animals.
But, according to Peters and Schmidt, the builders of Gobekli Tepe were on the verge of a major change in their way of life, thanks to an environment that contained the raw materials for agriculture. "They had wild sheep, wild crops that could be tamed, and people with the potential to do so," says Schmidt. In fact, surveys elsewhere in the region have shown that, 1,000 years after Gobekli Tepe was built, settlers had confined sheep, cattle and pigs. And in a prehistoric village just 20 miles away, geneticists have found evidence of the world's oldest domesticated wheat varieties; Radiocarbon dating indicates that agriculture developed there some 10,500 years ago, or just five centuries after Gobekli Tepe was built.
For Schmidt and others, these new discoveries point to a new theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that it was only after humans learned to farm and live in sedentary communities that they had the time, organization, and resources to build temples and maintain intricate social structures. But Schmidt argues that it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated efforts to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
The enormous size of the company at Göbekli Tepe reinforces this opinion. Schmidt says the monuments couldn't have been erected by ragged hunter-gatherers. Carving, erecting, and burying rings of seven-ton stone pillars would require hundreds of workers, all needing food and shelter. Hence the eventual appearance of sedentary communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. "It shows that sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later," says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. "It could be argued that this area is the true origin of complex Neolithic societies."
What was so important to these early humans that they banded together to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from the builders of Göbekli Tepe is almost unimaginable. Although I stood among the towering megaliths, eager to understand their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were complete strangers, put there by people who saw the world in ways I'll never understand. There are no sources explaining what the symbols might mean. Smith agrees. "We are here 6,000 years before the invention of writing," he says.
“Between Göbekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [engraved in 3300 B.C. B.C.] is longer than Sumeria so far," says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., who is familiar with Schmidt's work. "Trying to extract symbolism from the prehistoric context is an exercise in futility. "
Still, archaeologists have their theories, perhaps evidence of the overwhelming human need to explain the unexplainable. According to the researchers, the surprising lack of evidence that people lived directly there belies its use as a settlement or even as a place where, for example, clan leaders would gather. Hodder is fascinated by the fact that the pillar carvings at Gobekli Tepe are not dominated by edible prey like deer and cattle, but by menacing creatures like lions, spiders, snakes and scorpions. “It's a terrifying, fantastical world full of vicious-looking beasts,” he reflects. While later cultures were more concerned with agriculture and fertility, perhaps these hunters were trying to conquer their fears by building this complex a considerable distance from where they lived.
Danielle Stordeur, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, highlights the importance of the vulture sculptures. Some cultures have long believed that high-flying carrion birds carry the flesh of the dead to the skies. Stordeur found similar symbols at sites from the same period at Göbekli Tepe, just 80 kilometers away in Syria. "You can really see it's the same culture," she says. "All the important symbols are the same."
For his part, Schmidt is sure the secret is under his feet. Over the years, his team found human bone fragments in the layers of soil that filled the complex. Deep test pits have shown that the bottoms of the rings are hardened limestone. Schmidt bets on finding beneath the floors the true purpose of the structures: a final resting place for a society of hunters.
Perhaps, says Schmidt, the site was a cemetery or the center of a death cult, the dead being placed on the hillside among the stylized gods and spirits of the afterlife. In this case, the location of Göbekli Tepe was not a coincidence. "The dead have an ideal view from here," says Schmidt, as the sun casts long shadows on the half-buried pillars. "You're looking at a hunter's dream."
Andreas CurryThe Berlin-based author wrote the July cover story on the Vikings.
Berthold SteinhilberAward-winning, hauntingly illuminated photographs of America's ghost towns appeared inSmithsonianI am May 2001.
Andreas Curry | | KEEP READING
Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for a variety of scientific and historical publications, includingNational Geography,Nature, Ycabling. He is Associate Editor ofarcheologyand visited archaeological digs on five continents. (Image credit: Jennifer Porto)